Recently the Chilean government honored former World Council of Churches (WCC) chief Emilio Castro, a Uruguayan with Chilean roots, for his opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship during the 1980s. The award might have some merit, if Castro had not hypocritically denounced Pinochet while accommodating far more horrendous regimes, including the Soviet Union.
Castro, a Methodist minister, led the Swiss-based WCC from 1985-1992, before which he led the small Evangelical Methodist Church in Uruguay. Already notoriously left-wing since the 1960s, the WCC during the final years of the Cold War under Castro unashamedly continued to flack for the Soviet Empire, from Cuba to Afghanistan. Still, Chile has awarded him its Order of Bernardo O’Higgins, named for the 19th century hero of Chilean independence.
A recent news release from the National Council of Churches, the WCC’s American affiliate, boasted that Castro received the Chilean honor in Geneva, to which he retired, while also noting that Castro had studied under the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Barth, who heroically denounced Nazism earlier in his career, was himself notoriously neutralist toward Soviet Communism during the Cold War. Neutralism possibly could have been an improvement for Castro, who was unable to criticize communism, even as it began to crumble.
A 1993 Reader’s Digest article noted that upon Castro’s 1985 election as WCC general secretary, a KGB memo described him as “a candidate acceptable to us.” The Reader’s Digest also remembered that at a 1989 Kremlin reception, Castro addressed the guests as “comrades” and told his approving audience that Karl Marx “was dreaming out of the same biblical tradition from which we come …in that common dream we hope that between us we will have many steps to take in common.” With then Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov gladly looking on, Castro reportedly cooed: “I might be tempted to quote some of the most beautiful pages of Karl Marx, dreaming of the New Man, of the new creature.” The churchman also reportedly enthused: “Marxists and Christians in significant measure share a common source for such longings, which makes it possible for them to do so much together.”
Would Castro have been equally as friendly had he attended a reception in Chile in 1989 hosted by far less repressive Pinochet? Not likely. The KGB was right to find Castro “acceptable,” because he was as uncritical of Soviet client states as he was of the Marxist Motherland. Shortly after his ascension to the WCC’s helm, Castro confidently declared that “it is totally unfair to talk about clamping down on religious freedom in Nicaragua” under the Marxist Sandinista regime. Meanwhile the Roman Catholic archbishop in Nicaragua, unpersuaded by Castro’s brand of Liberation Theology, noted that “Marxism is trying to eliminate the Church in Nicaragua.” But Castro minimized the Sandinista crackdown again Roman Catholics, calling it a “conflict” between the government and the church “hierarchy,” not the church itself. He enthused that “many Christians” served in the Sandinista regime. And he professed neutrality when the Sandinistas framed a priest by planting weapons on him.
Castro’s infatuation with the far left did not begin with his WCC involvement. He had a longstanding association with the Soviet-front, Helsinki-based Christian Peace Conference, whose 1964 conference in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia he attended. The Christian Peace Conference for decades, at the behest of its Soviet masters and funders, persuaded groups like the WCC to support Soviet policy goals, usually with success. In the 1980s, the WCC declined to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, instead criticizing help for the anti-Soviet resistance, a stance that Castro later characterized as the “best service that could be offered for the sad situation in that country.”
Under Castro, the WCC accepted into membership communist China’s government run China Christian Council and also invited to its meetings the even more notoriously controlled North Korean puppet church group, the Korean Christians Federation. Castro and the WCC fairly carefully avoided any direct criticism of either Marxist state, even while avidly criticizing rightist regimes such as Pinochet’s in Chile. The 1980s were the heyday of Liberation Theology for the WCC and other radical church groups, and Castro effusively drank from its waters. Liberation Theology “offered new and quite constructive forms of justice and of participation in the overall problems of Latin American society,” Castro asserted in 1986. “With Liberation Theology, we Latin Americans can make real progress.
After the collapse of the Soviet empire and its client movements, much of Liberation Theology imploded. And even the WCC under Castro had to acknowledge communism’s imperfections. Somewhat backhandedly in 1992, Castro admitted that the “attacks on religion and conscience [within the old East Bloc] were more widespread than even most people within these oppressive situations themselves recognized.” But then absurdly, Castro asserted that the WCC “provided the only caring, trusting link between separated ecclesial communities and the peoples of which they were a part.”
By “caring” and “trusting,” Castro evidently was referring to the WCC’s years of silence about totalitarian oppression, a silence not observed towards the flaws of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Chile’s current government may honor him, but Castro cannot expect any similar awards from any of the former captive nations of the Soviet Empire.